A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors

Abstract

Increased attention has focused on methods to increase empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior. Meditation practices have traditionally been used to cultivate prosocial outcomes, and recently investigations have sought to evaluate their efficacy for these outcomes. We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of meditation for prosocial emotions and behavior. A literature search was conducted in PubMed, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Embase, and Cochrane databases (inception to April 2016) using the following search terms: mindfulness, meditation, mind-body therapies, tai chi, yoga, MBSR, MBCT, empathy, compassion, love, altruism, sympathy, or kindness. Randomized controlled trials in any population were included (26 studies with 1714 subjects). Most were conducted among healthy adults (n = 11) using compassion or loving kindness meditation (n = 18) over 8–12 weeks (n = 12) in a group format (n = 17). Most control groups were wait-list or no treatment (n = 15). Outcome measures included self-reported emotions (e.g., composite scores, validated measures) and observed behavioral outcomes (e.g., helping behavior in real-world and simulated settings). Many studies showed a low risk of bias. Results demonstrated small to medium effects of meditation on self-reported (SMD = .40, p < .001) and observable outcomes (SMD = .45, p < .001) and suggest psychosocial and neurophysiological mechanisms of action. Subgroup analyses also supported small to medium effects of meditation even when compared to active control groups. Clinicians and meditation teachers should be aware that meditation can improve positive prosocial emotions and behaviors.

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This study was supported by funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH 2T32AT000051-6; Luberto) and National Cancer Institute (NCI 1K24CA197382; Park).

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Contributions

CML conducted the systematic review and wrote the paper; NS served as the second reviewer for data extraction; RS conducted the meta-analysis and edited the paper; LLP conducted the literature search and edited the paper; ERP and GLF contributed to the writing and editing of the paper; and GYY assisted with data extraction and meta-analysis and contributed to the writing and editing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christina M. Luberto.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 4 Ovid MEDLINE search strategy

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Luberto, C.M., Shinday, N., Song, R. et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness 9, 708–724 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0841-8

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Keywords

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Prosocial